Our broadcasts this month will focus our attention on the birth of Christ. We will do this, however, by considering the announcement of the birth of the forerunner of Christ, that is, John the Baptist. In today’s broadcast we will examine the announcement of John’s birth to his father Zacharias by the angel.
Then, in connection with that, how John came as a fulfillment of the prophecy of the Old Testament prophet Malachi. In our broadcast next week, the Lord willing, we will consider the doubt of Zacharias and the sign given him by the angel.
Luke, in his gospel account, gives us a sad commentary on the church just prior to the coming of Christ. He writes in Luke 1:5, “There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea.” The Jews were ruled at that time by a man who was not himself a Jew. Herod was an Idumean, that is, an Edomite who came from the reprobate line of Esau. This reveals to us that the nation of Israel had fallen deeply into the way of sin and unbelief. Spiritual darkness had fallen upon Israel. Yet, God had His elect few who still looked for redemption in Israel. There were still those who lived in faith. Their hope in a coming Messiah that would save from sin was still alive. But even these had grown weak. The call to watch for the coming of Christ was merely a by-word, a frequently used phrase that had no meaning.
Then suddenly an angel appeared to an elderly saint and priest named Zacharias who worked in the temple. Zacharias’ task at that time was to offer incense. While he was performing this function, an angel suddenly stood at the right side of the altar of incense, bringing to Zacharias an amazing message. The Messiah was about to be born, and Zacharias and Elisabeth’s son would be the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. What son? Zacharias did not have a son. He and Elisabeth never had any children, and now Elisabeth was far past the age of bearing children. But the angel now announced to Zacharias that he and his wife, in their old age, would indeed give birth to a son and that they should name him John. This son would fulfill the prophecy that was spoken long ago by the prophet Malachi.
Zacharias was a devout man who labored in the temple. He, no doubt, knew this prophecy of which this angel spoke. It was that spoken by the prophet Malachi in Malachi 4:5, 6. It is this particular prophecy that the angel now repeats and that is recorded for us in Luke 1:16, 17. We read concerning John in these verses, “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” This prophecy we consider today in our broadcast. We learn in this prophecy of the purpose of John the Baptist in preparing the church of his day for the coming of Christ. So also this Word of God will remind us that Christ is soon to come again, a second time, and that we must watch diligently for him.
I. Like Unto Elijah
Malachi explained to the Old Testament church in this prophecy that before the coming of Jehovah, He would send the prophet Elijah to turn the hearts of God’s people. This prophecy was totally misconstrued by the Jewish leaders in Israel. The scribes taught the people that the prophet Elijah would himself personally return to earth. The purpose of his return would be to restore all things in Israel to their former state of glory. In this way the nation of Israel would be totally prepared to meet their Messiah. The angel, in his interpretation of Malachi’s prophecy, points out the fallacy of the Jewish people. Notice what he says in the first part of John 17, that this son of Zacharias (that is, now, John the Baptist), “shall go before him (that is, the Messiah) in the spirit and power of Elijah.” John was the Elijah that Malachi was speaking of. John the Baptist would soon be born in fulfillment of this prophecy. John here is compared to this prophet. We are told that John would be characterized by the same spirit and power of Elijah.
You see, Elijah was one of the most, if not the most, powerful of all the prophets. This was true not only because of the many miracles he performed. This was true also in the minds of the people because of the one great miracle Elijah performed on Mt. Carmel, where he challenged the priests of Baal to a showdown. Even the church today remembers that event well. It is one of the most exciting events in Old Testament history, equaling the story of David and Goliath. Elijah stood on Mt. Carmel before King Ahab, the priests of Baal, and many of the people in Israel. “How long halt ye between two opinions? If Jehovah be God, follow him, but if Baal, then follow him!” It was then that God sent fire down from heaven to consume the sacrifice and the altar that Elijah built. Afterwards, the people had shouted, “Jehovah he is the God! Jehovah, he is the God!” Such was the power of Elijah. Through this great miracle he was able to turn the hearts of the people from unbelief to faith in Jehovah. Such also would be the power of the son born to Zacharias and Elisabeth. In order to prepare Israel for the coming Christ, he would, in power, turn the hearts of many to Jehovah. Although John did not perform the miracles that Elijah did, nevertheless Jesus spoke this commentary about John in Matthew 11:11: “among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.” John was able to accomplish through his preaching in the wilderness exactly what Elijah did on the top of Mt. Carmel.
John also labored in the spirit of Elijah. The spirit of a man is that principle of life in him by which he thinks and wills. When comparing John to Elijah, the angel here speaks of the fact that John had the same zeal, dedication to the cause of God, and especially the same boldness as Elijah. John thought and acted like Elijah. How true. With boldness and zeal for Jehovah, Elijah stood before King Ahab and condemned his sin. With fearlessness Elijah condemned the sins of the kingdom of Israel, even though Jezebel threatened his life. Likewise would John the Baptist stand before Herod and condemn him and his sins. In like manner, John would actually die at the instigation of a wicked queen who hated him for his reproof. The comparison of Elijah with the son that would be born to Zacharias is almost uncanny—so much were these two men alike. In this way, the prophecy of Malachi was fulfilled in the life and work of John the Baptist.
But there is something more to this prophecy concerning John. We are told that John would go before Him to turn the hearts of God’s people. The question is: before whom? The answer may seem obvious: before Christ. John was the forerunner of Christ. He was sent by God to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. But look closely at the word of the angel to Zacharias here. In verse 16 of our text Luke writes, “many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God!” Then in verse 17, “And he shall go before him.” The reference is that John will go before the Lord God of Israel to turn the hearts of God’s people to Him. So also the prophecy of Malachi: “I will send you Elijah before the great and dreadful day of Jehovah.” John would prepare the way for the coming of Jehovah God.
Neither ought this to confuse us. After all, Jesus is God. He is the divine Son of God. Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. The message of the angel to Zacharias speaks exactly to this point. John was sent by God to prepare the way for the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. He was sent to prepare the hearts of Israel to meet their sovereign Lord and King, ruler of all nations!
Yet, this Lord was not to gain His throne by means of earthly battles and wars against the nations of this earth. He was going to earn His crown by means of His suffering and death. By means of the deepest humiliation, this king would be exalted at God’s right hand. This right He would earn because He was to deliver God’s people from sin and the power of Satan.
II. A Gracious Turning
But what work in particular was John sent to do? The message of Gabriel speaks of John’s task twice. First in verse 17 we learn that he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord. Then in verse 18 we learn that he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children. In short, through his preaching John would turn the hearts of God’s people to God. The “turning” spoken of here in our text is that of conversion. Conversion is that act of God through Christ by which He at one and the same time regenerates a person and calls him out of darkness into His light.
Let me explain that at little bit. When God regenerates a person, He delivers that person out of death and into life. Whereas that person was lost in sin and totally given over to sin and its power; whereas that person was subject only to death and condemnation; by means of the power of Christ’s Spirit, the heart of that person is made alive to things spiritual. Before that there was no spark of life, and afterwards the life of Christ is implanted into his heart—the spiritual center of a man’s being. This is why the angel speaks of turning the hearts of God’s people. This is a work of God in the heart. When such regeneration takes place in an adult, God at the same time calls him unto faith and repentance. Through the work of the Spirit in the heart, that person also becomes aware of his new life in Christ. In other words, the life infused into a man’s heart also becomes light—a light that dispels the darkness of unbelief in order that, as a result, a person is given the ability to see and know the things of the kingdom of heaven.
This act of God in salvation is called conversion. The term “conversion” means to be turned. Such is what the angel refers to as the work of John. John was sent by God to convert the people of Israel who were lost in the darkness of unbelief. He was called to turn them so that they would begin to look for redemption from sin in their Messiah once again. In this way he would make ready a people prepared to meet their Lord, their Savior, their Messiah.
There certainly was a need for John to do this in Israel. The people of Israel had forgotten about their Messiah. His coming was spoken of, but there was no true desire for that birth of the Messiah. The children of Israel were not interested in His coming, so lost were they in the pleasures and prosperity of belonging to the Roman Empire. Besides, who needed a Messiah to save from sin when they saw no sin? The darkness of unbelief lay heavily on this nation just as the darkness does on the church of Jesus Christ today who ought to be looking for the second coming of Christ. The message John brought to God’s people then is the same that needs to be heard today: repent and turn from your sin, turn from your lethargy, turn from your self-righteousness. Believe on that Savior who will soon come again to bring this present world with all its sin to an end and usher in a new heavens and earth! Look for your coming Christ who will appear on the clouds of heaven when no man will expect Him or be looking for Him.
The preaching of John in the spirit and power of Elijah is what needs to be heard today. How immersed we can be in the things of this life, our homes, cars, technology, vacations, and entertainment. We can become so immersed in these things that the zeal for Christ’s coming and the kingdom of heaven can become so dim! We can begin to live for today without any thought of the life that is to come! May John’s message of repentance turn our hearts in order that we might be prepared to meet our Lord.
But this turning the angel describes in verse 17 of our text is stated in a peculiar way. Notice: “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children.” There have been different attempts to interpret this phrase. I believe that what is meant by it is that John will serve to turn the hearts of fathers in the direction of or toward children. The original does not say “the fathers to their children,” but merely “the hearts of fathers toward children.” That is significant, I believe. You see, Jesus teaches us that in order for one to enter the kingdom of heaven he must become as a little child in his faith. Adults have a way of letting all kinds of things get in the way of simple faith in Jesus Christ. We allow the burdens of this life to weigh us down and agitate us instead of casting our cares on Christ for comfort and peace. We allow our earthly pursuits to distract us from concentrating on the things of heaven. Christ teaches us that we must be as little children. This also is the meaning of the phrase that John will turn the hearts of fathers in the direction of children. By his preaching, John will turn the hearts of fathers or adults to look upon children and follow them in their simple faith in Jesus the Christ. No longer will they look for redemption in the law but instead rely upon or believe in Christ.
The next phrase can be interpreted in much the same way: “to turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” The people of Israel were as disobedient children who had perverted the ways of their fathers. Their fathers had given them the wisdom of the just. They were taught by the prophets and the law to look for their Messiah. This was the way of wisdom that was taught by the just, that is, those who were righteous in the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. But the children of Israel had corrupted their ways. John, through his call to repentance, would now bring these disobedient children back into the way of wisdom that was taught by their fathers of faith, who looked for their righteousness in the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.
Such is the meaning of the unique language of this prophecy. In short: John would, through his work, turn the hearts of God’s people in childlike faith to the coming Messiah. In this way, John would make ready a people prepared for the Lord. John was the forerunner of Christ. He was sent as that voice crying in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” All of this was foretold in the angel’s message to Zacharias. But there is one more truth in the Word of God before us that may not be overlooked.
III. A People Prepared
The message of the angel reads, at the end of verse 17: a people prepared for the Lord. It is true, a people was prepared for the coming of Christ. There were those who, being forewarned, began anew to look with fervency for the Messiah. John did turn the hearts of people to the Lord their God, so that they in faith looked for their Messiah. But, first of all, John did not preach repentance to the world. This would be Paul’s task later on. John preached only to the church at that time. But out of that church not all were turned from their sin and unbelief. In fact, the majority of the church at that time continued on in its formalism and worldliness. The outward call of the gospel came to everyone who would hear. But that call of the gospel was meant by God only to turn the hearts of the faithful. It was meant to turn the hearts of the elect.
We read in verse 16 of our text: “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.” Not most, but many were turned. And if they were not turned through John the Baptist’s preaching, the hearts of God’s people would be turned later when the Spirit was poured out on the church on the day of Pentecost. Let us not forget that the church at the time of Pentecost was still made up of Jews. God had His people among the children of Israel. John’s preaching served to prepare the hearts of God’s elect remnant so that when Christ did appear, they would then look to Him for redemption.
So also today. The call of the gospel goes out today to us and to all who will hear, repent, and believe! Turn from sin and be prepared. Christ is coming! But though the call goes out to everyone, only “many,” not all, will heed that call. The call to repent turns the hearts only of those in whom God has chosen to send forth His Spirit. Those of the church as well as of the world, in whom God does not work by His grace, will continue in their lives with no desire for the final salvation that is ours with Christ’s second coming. But we hear that call sent out by God’s messengers and God prepares our hearts. We rejoice at this time of the year that God has sent His Son.
We rejoice in the birth of our Savior. Our hearts are made glad. With that same gladness we look for Christ’s second coming as well. We must be a people prepared for the Lord!